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If you’ve been reading this blog (and I know there are people faithfully reading – amazing but true!), you’ll know that I’ve been moving around a lot in the last few months. Since I started writing this little cyber-journal in April and then printed Walking with Wolf in May, I’ve written about my impressions and experiences while wandering through a bunch of places, selling a bunch of books. However, I don’t think I’ve written all that much about Hamilton Ontario, my birth place which I returned to after about twenty-five years of living in the northern bush and the tropical tangle.
In 2000 I came back here and bought a house with my ex-partner, Jim, in the fiercely proud north end of the city. Hamilton is a port and this is the oldest part of the city, close to the water. It was the only neighbourhood I was interested in living in, as it is bordered by the Hamilton Harbour and the Bayfront Park, giving me close access to the waterfront, as well as being a fifteen minute walk to downtown. Although I wouldn’t swim in the water here, there are places that I can go to sit on a park bench and look across the bay, and totally forget where I am which I find quite conducive to day-dreaming and creative-writing. As it says on the back of Walking with Wolf, I was born here but left, then came back rather unwillingly but stayed because I found this artistic renaissance happening here - and, always a grassroots person myself, I appreciated that the cultural revolution was swelling from the ground up.
Hamilton, once a raging steel-factory-dominated city, built by Italians and with deep working-class roots, has always been maligned. I grew up across the bay in Burlington, a suburban city - from there the body of water is called the Burlington Bay. From the big houses along the Burlington lakeshore you look east or south at the Hamilton skyline of smokestacks and shoreline of slagpiles. When the industrial barons built those big houses over in Burlington, they no doubt liked to look at the factories that were making them rich. That skyline was one of the things that sent me running to the northern bush as a teenager.
Now, from my vantage point on the Hamilton side of the bay, I don’t see the factories at all. I go a few minutes from my house and look north toward the tree-lined coast of Burlington, at the sailboats flying across the waves, the sun setting in the west, and the convoluted rocky Niagara Escarpment that adds a geographical uniqueness to the landscape.
I told Jim that I would stay here for two years and that was IT! I quickly found out that I could live here cheaper than in most places and that was reason to stay, since I was gone half of the year to Costa Rica. Jim had his work here and I began writing the book and didn’t want to uproot in the middle of that process. After a couple years, we bought the house directly across the street from where we were living - an indication of how much I liked the street and our neighbours. The neighbourhood changes constantly - people can actually afford to buy houses here and, even in a collapsed market, houses in this barrio sell quickly. About four years ago I gave up my vehicle, realizing that I didn’t need it to get around in this city, preferring to walk or ride my bike, and public transit can take me easily to Toronto and the airport. When Jim and I split up a few years ago, I stayed in the house which is perfect for one person, on this street where a number of single women live (a sign that it is a comfortable and safe neighbourhood to be in), and in this city, which slowly but surely seduced me with its dirty urban charms and incredible artistic community.
This is the appropriate time to focus on the gritty city (even our literary festival is called Grit Lit) because it is the week of the Hamilton Music Awards, when local fans and music industry folk get together to celebrate the Hammer’s musicians and the music. This is my fourth year working as a volunteer backstage. I do it simply to help JP Gauthier, whose brainchild this is, to honor the musicians, and to spend several nights feasting on the fine music here.
Although the classics in all fields are represented in Hamilton (there is a thriving Philharmonic Orchestra and an ever-growing jazz scene), the music that excites me the most is the stuff that feels like it was born on the streets. The musicians I’ve met and those I’ve watched perform have a voice and a sensibility here that is very different from the other musical communities I’ve been part of - Quebec and Costa Rica – which actually share many characteristics - or eastern and northern Ontario. I’m not sure how to describe the difference – beyond being urban - but it is definitely fed by gravelly-voiced irreverant singer/songwriters (Tom Wilson, Tim Gibbons), vixen songstresses (Lori Yates, Buckshot Bebee, Jude Johnson), smokin’ guitarists (Brian Griffith), flying keyboard fingers (Jesse O’Brien) and a whole slew of talented musicians, raunchy performers and hard-working producers. Uber-producer Daniel Lanois (U2, Bob Dylan, Neville Brothers, on and on) comes from here and returns regularly. The music community tends to be very supportive of each other. In this city of about half a million people, there is still a feeling of it being a town, a hard-rock over-sized village, but there have been enough imports and exports that there is a bit of a cosmic-politan air as well, even if that air is a little dirty.
Last Sunday afternoon, I set up a little Walking with Wolf table at the Mad Hatter’s Green Tea Party in Dundas (once its own town, now considered part of the larger Hamilton area unless, of course, you live there). After a week of balmy weather, it had turned cold and grey with frosty flakes drifting about. So it was pleasant to be in a cozy room with a number of greenish vendors, a silent auction, live music provided by locals Kim and Frank Koren, and a bonus to be set up right next door to the coffee and goodies. They were healthy ones and exceptional, especially a chocolate-covered mousse-filled biscotti….
Besides spending a very nice afternoon, I sold two books and traded another one for a stained glass peace dove and a glass bauble. I also bought a theatre ticket from a fast-talking man who I had met the night of my book launch at the Pearl Company [see A Pearl of a Night.] The play, “You Are What You Do” is actually at that same Pearl in December and now I’ll be going, thanks to this very good salesman (not that I mind at all-in fact look forward to it). The organizers of the tea party – including Peter Ormond, a local Green Party candidate, and Barbara Maccaroni, a raw food chef and soon to be house-sitter while I head south – did a great job, provided us with a pleasant time, and even made a fair chunk of change for the Green Party.
The rest of the week is about the music. It got started off in a great way as people gathered last night at the Bread and Roses Cafe to celebrate Jackie Washington’s 89th birthday. Jackie is a local legend, a great blues man but not just that - he is reputed to know more than 1200 songs off the popular charts. He is a very entertaining storyteller, his voice strong and clear even on the cusp of his ninetieth year. Jackie was born in Hamilton and has been singing songs since the age of five, first with his three brothers, and then as a regular well-loved participant in blues and folk festivals around the country. He’s played with Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee as well as Joni Mitchell and Gordon Lightfoot. He no doubt could have had a career in the United States but instead rode the rails in Canada working for Canadian Pacific to satisfy his restlessness and always lived his life in the Hammer - in the words of songwriter Colin Linden, in a song sung by Blackie and the Rodeo Kings – ”He never crossed over that American border, though he lived just a few miles away. He said ‘everything I need I can find right here – north of the USA’.”
A crowd of local musicians, fans and friends came out to honor him last night and listen to his stories of what the music business was like in Hamilton in the thirties, the sixties, the eighties – well, close to ninety years of tales and tunes. So very happy birthday, Mr. Washington – “long may your sweet song carry on”.
I was there with my pal, Lori Yates, and also bumped into guitarist extraordinaire, Brian Griffith. Brian is Jackie’s nephew – he has the incredible musical genes that have been passed through this family – these genes also have given them both the longest fingers in the land. He is another man happy to stay in the Hammer and as he says, will only go on the road if the opportunity is just too much to miss – as in when he toured with Willie Nelson for three years and played with Bonnie Raitt or was asked by Dan Lanois to sit in on recording sessions. He is Hamilton’s guitar idol and the sweetest man as well. That’s in his genes too.
So for the next four nights I will be out at musical events, taking tickets at the door (at the Pearl, once again), running around backstage first at the industry awards on Saturday and then the big celebrity-laden rockin’ Hammies on Sunday, each night followed by fun and frolicking in the Hammer-core. In the days, I’ll be re-working my power point presentation to present the book in Guelph at the eBar next Tuesday night as well as be connecting with the kind folks who are helping me set up book events next spring in Philadelphia, New York City, Boston and Maine. Yaaaaawwww - excuse me -nnnnn…I’m getting tired just thinking of it.
Your roving reporter will be back in a few days with more musical tales from the Hammer.
It is the morning of the book launch day here in the Hammer. I don’t have a lot of time – in fact, I shouldn’t be spending the few hours remaining blog-writing, but I guess it is a good distraction and having just downloaded pictures to clear my camera for tonight, I thought I’d add a note.
One would think by reading my blog that all I do is travel around, visit friends, dance and party. Well, it has been a summer of great celebration, that is for sure, but also of book busyness. I’ve always had a way of balancing work and play, some would say I make it look easy. I think that is why the arrival of Walking with Wolf in a form that pleases people in Monteverde also surprised many. They thought I was just hanging around, going to the beach, dancing alot. When actually I was working on the book over all these years…yes, it was many years, but better slow and sure than fast and furious I say. The book became what it is from the years I spent getting to know Wolf, getting his stories out of him, and gaining trust from his family and the community. I think if I had managed to do that in a five or ten year period, it wouldn’t have been the same at all. So that is my excuse, and I’m sticking with it.
Since Kstock last week, once my sister and friends all left, I hunkered down and started preparing for tonight’s book launch. Over Labour Day weekend, even though I had the use of my friend Cocky’s car (who had gone west but has now returned), I didn’t even get into it between Thursday and Tuesday. Even as the sun shone brightly outside, and the days passed in end-of-summer glory, I was bent over my laptop, preparing the music and images for the book show. I did manage to sit outside with my laptop one day, and without even knowing what bit me, ended up with a great big fat lip from some amorous bug who obviously wanted to kiss me. I think that was Saturday and if I had any plans of going out that evening, my swollen face changed that, instead I got more sleep and got up and kept working.
Sunday night I did go out with my friend Jeff and some friends of his on their catamaran (nicely named My Mistress). The Burlington Bay (which we called it when I grew up on the other side over in Burlington) or the Hamilton Harbour (which is closer to home now), was a scary piece of water when I was a kid. The steel companies loomed over it and back in the day, they belched out pollution like a kettle making steam. From the Burlington side of the bay, you looked over at the shoreline of factories and for me it was some kind of purgatory. It was what sent me running to the wild north country as a teenager. I knew that I didn’t want to live in the shadow of the smokestacks all my life.
Now that I’m back and living in Hamilton, those factories are actually sitting in a way that I don’t see them from my home nor from the Bayfront Park that is moments away. When you go out in a boat on the water, they form an industrial backdrop, the truth being that the steel companies are only producing a fraction of what they used to and so they are starting to have a look of antiquity about them. The bay has always been a place for boaters, including the ice boats that take advantage in the years when the ice is thick and safe, and seeing flotillas of sailboats is a pleasant sight, even with the monolithic smokestacks rising behind them. When the smoke rises just right, it is almost reminiscent of a volcano and with great imagination, you can look at the smokestacks like old palm trees who have lost their leaves (big big imagination).
You can head out to the dark, deep, cold waters of Lake Ontario by passing under the Skyway Bridge when the lift bridge is raised. Once on the other side, you can continue as far as you like, I guess all the way to Africa if you really wanted to.
Something that I loved to do when I was a kid was fishing for smelts at the base of the lift bridge. I think it was in the spring (tho I’m not really sure) that my dad would get his net together and take Maggie and I out at night – we would join all the other people at the end of the pier in the dark with our lanterns. We’d put our net in and pull it out, the little silvery smelts wiggling in their woven trap - Maggie and I would free them, only to put them in the pail and take them home for a great fish fry. Maybe that’s why I had cancer many years later, having eaten all those little fish from the industrial lake. I wouldn’t touch anything from there now, but people still stand on the pier and fish, and I know some keep their catch, while others are flexing their fishing muscles or just loving the peaceful solitary activity of fishing.
Jeff has been a member of a local sailing club for most of his life and took me along on his friends’ boat for this beautiful evening sail which is really like a social club on pontoons. It reminded me of walking around the neighbourhood, stopping to visit the folks down the road, having a beer on the veranda, and then carrying on to visit the next neighbour. The boats raft up, talk boats, tell stories, discuss the details of the next upcoming race, and then move on until they come close to another friendly boat and then raft up again. Here is Mr. Jeff Glen, known amongst the sailors as El Commodore
Jeff and I originally thought that we may go on the boat but later jump ship on the Burlington side, where the annual ribfest was happening and there was great music playing. But it was too beautiful on the water, and in all honesty, the Burlington shoreline looked like an army had invaded, set up camp, and was burning down the city, the result of all those rib barbeques sending their exhaust in the air. It seemed much safer to stay on the boat and continue the floating social soiree.
We stayed out from 5 p.m. till midnight – it was a glorious night, thanks to Dirk and Kendra and their 3-month old baby, the owners of My Mistress, and all the other nice people we would raft up to. Sometime near the end of the night, as I was slowly being lulled into a floating dreamland, the boat we were tied to put on a Jimmy Buffet CD - it was all so cliche I had to laugh. The parrotheads are everywhere, and even with the steel companies leafless-palm tree stacks belching volcanic plumes behind us, it was somehow paradise.
Besides that evening, I have stayed close to home to get my work done, to be focused and in constant email contact with people concerning upcoming book-gigs. I did two radio shows – one, a rock n roll show on the Mohawk College radio station with Lou Molinaro, who is the husband of Lynn Beebe, one of the members of the Evelyn Dicks who are playing at the launch tonight. Along with Lynn and Lori Yates, also in the band, we plugged the book and the launch and the Dicks’ performance. Lori and Lynn played a song at the end, called Soiled Girl, but with a line about black widow spiders – nature in the city. It was a great half hour. I’ve found local media very difficult to get involved – some of it is that they are short staffed, but if you watch our local television and read the paper, so much is from the wires, American-based news and entertainment. Local musicians empathize with me, saying that getting local media to support homegrown art is difficult unless you are already well established. So I really appreciate when Lou, or any other local media folks, take a moment to plug the book and the launch.
I woke up yesterday morning to a phone call from Bob Bratina, my local municipal councilman who also does a very popular morning radio show on CHML. He asked if I could be near the phone in ten minutes and they’d call me and do a live plug for the book. Well, I hadn’t even had coffee, but I shook myself, poured a cup, and was ready. I don’t know what I said in response to the questions, but I did appreciate the enthusiasm for the book, Wolf’s work, and the promo for the launch that came from Bob and his cohost, Shiona Thompson. And I did receive an email last night from Connie Smith, a news anchor at CH, the local TV station, who said they couldn’t do anything before the launch but maybe we could put together something about the book soon. So I am happy with all that.
I am preparing for northern Ontario next weekend, three book-gigs, at the Chat Noir Bookstore in New Liskeard, at the Moon Cafe in Mattawa, and at Hibou Boutique in North Bay. I drove half an hour up the road to Guelph on Tuesday and set up a book event at the Bookshelf, a very dynamic bookstore, actually a whole book community, that I frequented when I went to the University of Guelph back in the early eighties. I will be doing a book event at the Bookshelf on November 18 and am very excited about that, my friend Lynda Lehman helping me put that together.
I have my power point presentation ready, the projector that my sister and brother-in-law bought me is working just fine, and I am ready to go. Cocky just returned, we’ve been taking care of business and managing to get out to do a little dancing in the Hammer at night, but there will be dancing and celebrating going on tonight, once I’ve finished my work at the Pearl Company and can relax and enjoy the Evelyn Dicks as well as the Costa Rican music I have compiled for the event.
Just talking about it makes me antsy – I better get going and doing something about tonight. The next blog will be a report of the book launch. This last picture is an alleyway here in Hamilton, close to my home. I believe it is a Portuguese woman who puts the flowers there and has provided the colour to the walls. I appreciate that I have managed to find enough beauty in this funky little city to keep me happy, even though my heart tells me I should be living in the bush. Ah, the Hammer, urban jungle, my hometown.